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Sugar addiction: symptoms, cravings, withdrawal, and treatment

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Sugar addiction

Sugar addiction refers to a dependence on consuming sugary foods or beverages, characterized by cravings, loss of control, and negative impacts on physical and mental well-being. While not officially recognized as a clinical diagnosis, certain individuals experience addictive-like behaviors related to sugar consumption.

The symptoms and signs of sugar addiction include craving for sweets, salt cravings, losing control over sugar consumption, eating more sugar than planned, tolerance, covering up sugar habit, turning to sugar for emotional relief, and withdrawal symptoms. 

Sugar cravings are defined as intense desires for sweet-tasting foods or beverages, often driven by the body’s response to fluctuations in blood sugar levels. These cravings result from factors such as hormonal changes, stress, or habit, and contribute to a cycle of overconsumption. 

The symptoms of sugar withdrawal include irritability, headaches, fatigue, cravings, nausea, disruptions in sleep patterns, and anxiety. 

The available treatments for sugar addiction are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), nutritional counseling, support groups, medication, and physical activity.

Is Sugar addictive?

Yes, sugar is addictive, as consuming added sugars has significant similarities to drug-like effects, such as alterations in dopamine receptor binding and the opioid effects associated with drug abuse, according to a review by DiNicolantonio et al., published in the August 2017 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine

A 2008 study by Avena et al., published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews further stated that sugar is notable as a chemical that releases opioids and dopamine and hence has the potential to be addictive.

It is important to mention that the issue of whether sugar is addictive is currently a subject of ongoing controversy among scientific and medical experts.

Is Sugar more addictive than cocaine?

Yes, sugar is considered to be more addictive than cocaine in certain cases. For instance, the results of a 2013 review by Ahmed et al., from the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care revealed that the pleasures that come from consuming sugar are much more alluring and rewarding to the brain than the effects of cocaine.

Furthermore, Connecticut College professor Joseph Schroeder and his students found that Oreo cookies trigger more neurons in the pleasure area of the rats’ brains than cocaine, and the rodents will eat the filling first, exactly like humans, according to a 2013 Science news titled, “Are Oreos addictive? Research says yes” from ScienceDaily.

Although the analogy to cocaine addiction is thought-provoking, it is critical to acknowledge that addiction to substances such as sugar and cocaine is characterized by intricate physiological and psychological elements.

Why is Sugar addictive?

Sugar is addictive due to its effect on the reward system of the brain. The release of pleasure-and reward-associated neurotransmitters like dopamine occurs in the brain in response to the consumption of sweet foods. 

This release is responsible for both the sensation of happiness as well as an increased desire to consume sugar. Repeated exposure to high sugar levels over time causes a downregulation of dopamine receptors, which means that more sugar is needed to produce the same level of pleasure.

In fact, in a study by Winterdahl et al., published in the November 2019 issue of Scientific Reports, scientists looked at what happened to seven female Gottingen minipigs when they consumed sugar. They used advanced PET imaging methods with opioid receptor agonists and dopamine receptor inhibitors to look at the animals’ brain reward systems.

The researchers found that dopamine and opioid systems in the brain underwent significant alterations after only 12 days of sugar consumption. In addition, upon initial ingestion, the opioid system, the section of the brain’s chemistry associated with pleasure and well-being, was already activated.

What is Sugar addiction?

pile of sugar

Sugar addiction is defined as the recurrent and increasing use of sugary substances notwithstanding negative consequences. The addictive quality is ascribed to the influence of sugar on the brain’s reward system, namely the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which lead to feelings of pleasure and reinforcement.

Sugar addiction tends to occur through a loop in which regular sugar consumption desensitizes dopamine receptors, causing an increase in intake to attain the same pleasurable impact. This downregulation raises tolerance, which leads to prolonged sugar intake.

Is addiction to Sugar a real addiction?

No, addiction to sugar is not a real addiction, at least not as of this writing. This is due to the fact that studies currently have conflicting findings on whether sugar does elicit an addictive response. 

For instance, according to a 2016 study titled, “Sugar addiction: the state of the science” from the European Journal of Nutrition, there is minimal evidence to support the idea of sugar addiction in humans, and animal research indicates that behaviors similar to those observed in drug addiction such as bingeing occur only when sugar is restricted. 

Put another way, the study’s authors emphasize the need for more research but feel that the restriction—rather than the impact of sugar on the brain—is the problem.

On the other hand, a 2011 study by Nicole M. Avena and Mark S. Gold published in the Addiction journal argued that the addictive potential of diets high in fat, sugar, and salt is higher than that of conventional foods like vegetables and fruits. The scientists added that food addiction, which shares a strong connection with sugar addiction, is likely to emerge alongside non-drug addictions like gambling disorder in the near future.

Is Sugar addiction scientifically recognized?

No, sugar addiction is not scientifically recognized as of now. In the scientific and medical communities, the classification of sugar addiction as a formal and distinct disorder or condition is a subject of ongoing debate. 

While there is research suggesting that sugar consumption leads to behaviors and neurological responses resembling addictive patterns, there is no consensus on a standardized definition or diagnostic criteria for sugar addiction listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Healthcare professionals in the United States and around the world use this manual to diagnose mental disorders.  

In fact, according to a study by Piquet-Pessôa et al., published in the June 2014 issue of Current Addiction Reports stated that for a long time, older versions of the DSM only used the word “addiction” to refer to drug and alcohol use. 

Seeking non-drug rewards (like gaming, food, and sex) was seen as a sign of impulse control disorders or personality disorders. For the first time, the DSM-5 includes behaviors that aren’t linked to drugs, like gambling disorder, as addictions. 

This is because there is evidence that gambling activates reward systems that are similar to those in drugs of abuse. However, the decision not to include diseases comparable to food and sugar addiction, such as compulsive shopping, compulsive sex, and kleptomania, as behavioral addictions in DSM-5 is supported by the current level of evidence, which is regarded insufficient to categorize these behaviors as addictions.

How common is Sugar addiction?

Sugar addiction is extremely common, as daily added sugar intake for the average American amounts to 270 calories, or approximately 17 teaspoons, according to a 2016 publication titled, “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 – Cut Down on Added Sugars” from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. As a point of reference, the agency advises a 2,000-calorie diet to limit added sugar calories to 200, or around 12 teaspoons. 

It is worth mentioning that ​​the prevalence of sugar addiction is a complex and debated issue, as there is no universally agreed-upon definition or diagnostic criteria for this concept. While many people enjoy sweet foods and beverages, not everyone develops addictive behaviors toward sugar. An additional problem with the discussion is that there isn’t a standard way to measure or diagnose sugar addiction, which makes it hard to know how common it really is.

What are the symptoms and signs of Sugar addiction?

The symptoms and signs of sugar addiction refer to a variety of behavioral and physiological indicators that indicate an individual is experiencing addictive tendencies in relation to sugar consumption. The most common symptoms and signs of sugar addiction are listed below. 

  • Craving for sweets: In individuals experiencing addictive-like patterns related to sugar, these cravings are often intense, persistent, and difficult to resist. A lot of the good feelings experienced from eating sugar are due to the way it affects the brain’s reward system, namely the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine. 
  • Salt cravings: Cravings for salty foods are typical among sugar addicts, as these persons are frequently low in vital nutrients. This is due to the fact that sugar is an empty calorie. It greatly boosts the calorie content of foods and beverages yet gives no nutritional benefit. 
  • Losing control over sugar consumption: Individuals exhibit this pattern of behavior when they struggle to control their consumption of sugary foods. Difficulty in controlling sugar consumption signifies a potential imbalance in the regulation of dietary habits and points towards addictive patterns, where the desire for sugar overrides rational attempts at moderation.
  • Eating more sugar than planned: This symptom underscores a loss of control over dietary choices and a deviation from intended consumption limits. The desire for the pleasurable sensations associated with sugar consumption override pre-established plans, leading to the consumption of larger quantities than initially intended.
  • Tolerance: Tolerance describes the diminishing effectiveness of a given amount of sugar over time, necessitating an escalation in consumption to achieve the same level of satisfaction or pleasure. In a model utilized in the 2018 study by Wiss et al., published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, rats gradually increased the amount of sugar they consumed, which is likely evidence in favor of a tolerance effect.
  • Covering up sugar habit: Hiding a sugar habit reflects a level of secrecy and awareness of potential negative consequences associated with excessive sugar consumption. Individuals who feel compelled to conceal their sugar intake do so to avoid judgment, criticism, or concern from others who are aware of the health risks that come with consuming large amounts of sugar. 
  • Turning to sugar for emotional relief: This symptom suggests that one tends to use sugary meals as a crutch when they are feeling down. There is a psychological component to sugar addiction, as the constant use of sugar as a coping technique implies that there are no other, healthier ways to manage emotions for the affected individual. However, results of a 2019 study by Mantantzis et al., published in the Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews revealed that sugar does not boost mood and causes people to feel less attentive and more tired after consuming it.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: In an animal model that they created, Avena et al., in their 2008 study published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, fed rats chow and a sugar solution for 12 hours every day after they had been denied food for 12 hours. This resulted in sugar binge eating. Rats displayed behaviors classified as bingeing, craving, withdrawal, and cross-sensitization, which are similar to the hallmarks of drug abuse. Signs of behavioral depression and anxiety were among the withdrawal symptoms.

What are the causes of Sugar addiction?

The causes of sugar addiction refer to a complex web of variables that, when brought together, form the basis for and sustain sugar-related addictive behaviors. The causes of sugar addiction are listed below. 

  • Genetic predisposition: A 2010 study from Jeffrey L. Fortuna published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs stated that existing evidence supports the notion that bulimia, alcohol dependence, and obesity share genetic markers. Certain genetic variants, including the dopamine 2 receptor gene and the A1 allele gene, might account for the sweet preference observed in individuals dependent on alcohol and drugs, as well as in the biological offspring of paternal alcoholics.
  • Neurological reward system: The way sugar affects the brain’s reward system is at the root of sugar addiction. In fact, according to a 2008 study titled, “Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake” published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, the accumbens repeatedly produces dopamine when sugar is consumed on a daily basis. This is the same part of the brain that is thought to be involved in how users react to drugs. 
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders: Sugar addiction is heavily influenced by emotional and psychological factors. Individuals tend to turn to sugar as a form of self-soothing or coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, or negative emotions. Sugar consumption produces a psychological dependence, with people relying on sweet foods to control their mood.
  • Habitual behavior and routine: Sugar addiction is likely to emerge from habitual patterns and routines surrounding food choices. If an individual consistently incorporates sugary snacks into daily routines, the behavior becomes ingrained, making it challenging to break the cycle. Habits formed around sugar consumption lead to a reliance on sweet foods as a default, contributing to the addictive nature of the behavior.
  • Environmental and societal influences: Sugar addiction is influenced by environmental and societal variables such as the widespread availability and marketing of sugary foods. Exposure to high-sugar, processed foods in various social settings normalize excessive sugar intake. Furthermore, societal conventions and cultural practices surrounding food unintentionally encourage addictive behaviors.

What are the effects of Sugar addiction?

The effects of sugar addiction involve the consequences stemming from the development and perpetuation of patterns related to excessive sugar consumption. The effects of sugar addiction are listed below. 

  • Weight gain: Excessive sugar consumption leads to weight gain as sugary foods are often high in calories and low in nutritional value. Additionally, there is evidence suggesting that added sugar-rich diets contribute to the development of obesity, according to a review by Faruque et al., published in the 2019 issue of the Polish Journal of Food and Nutrition Sciences.
  • Increased risk of heart disease: Prolonged sugar consumption is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular issues. In fact, a 2016 study by DiNicolantonio et al., published in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases stated that refined carbohydrates, particularly sugars, raise the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and cause negative changes in lipid profiles. Diets high in sugar are connected to a number of metabolic disorders linked to an elevated CHD risk.
  • Mood and energy fluctuations: Sugar addiction leads to the occurrence of mood swings and variations in energy levels. The rapid spikes and subsequent crashes in blood sugar levels, caused by frequent and high sugar intake, lead to irritability, fatigue, and difficulties in maintaining stable emotional well-being.
  • Dental problems: The bacteria in the mouth feed on sugars, producing acids that erode tooth enamel and lead to decay. Over time, this results in a range of oral health problems, including cavities and gum disease. 
  • Diabetes: Persistent intake of high amounts of sugar leads to insulin resistance, a condition where cells become less responsive to the hormone insulin. Insulin resistance hampers the effective regulation of blood sugar levels, eventually contributing to the development of type 2 diabetes. 
  • Increased risk of developing certain cancers: As previously indicated, obesity is caused by a diet high in sugary foods and drinks. In connection with this fact, a 2021 study by Crudele et al., published in the journal Nutrients revealed that obesity, specifically visceral adiposity, constitutes a substantial risk factor for a multitude of cancer types. These include non-Hodgkin lymphoma, thyroid, renal, and colon cancers, esophageal adenocarcinoma, multiple myeloma, and leukemia.

What are Sugar cravings?

strawberries and sugar

Sugar cravings are strong, focused desires for sweet-tasting foods or drinks that indicate an intense urge to eat or drink sugar-rich foods. These cravings are often characterized by a heightened appetite for the sensory pleasure associated with sweetness, driven by the impact of sugar on the brain’s reward system. 

The desire for sugary substances typically manifests as a psychological and physiological inclination, influencing thoughts and behaviors related to food choices. Individuals experience different levels of severity and frequency of sugar cravings, and regulating these varying aspects that lead to this strong desire for sweetness in the diet is necessary to treat the issue.

What causes Sugar cravings?

The causes of sugar cravings include blood sugar fluctuations, stress, habits and established routines, period cravings, medications, and lack of sleep. Firstly, sugar cravings are often triggered by fluctuations in blood sugar levels. 

When blood sugar drops, the body signals a need for a quick source of energy, leading to cravings for sugary foods. Consuming these foods rapidly elevate blood sugar, providing a short-term energy boost. 

Additionally, emotional states, stress, and psychological factors significantly influence sugar cravings. Certain individuals turn to sugary foods for comfort or as a coping mechanism during periods of stress or emotional distress.

Habits and established routines contribute to sugar cravings. If sugary foods are consistently included in daily routines, such as having dessert after meals, these habits become ingrained. Breaking away from such routines lead to cravings as the body and mind have become accustomed to the regular consumption of sugary treats.

Alterations in progesterone and estrogen levels occur during the menstrual cycle; these hormonal fluctuations affect appetite and dietary preferences. In a 2017 study by Julia M. Hormes and Martha A. Niemiec published in PLOS One,  more than 90% of American women admit to having cravings for chocolate, and about half report that their desires intensify and rise in frequency around the start of their menstrual cycle.

As a side effect, several medications lead to sugar cravings. Certain antidepressants, corticosteroids, and antipsychotics, such as risperidone, quetiapine, and clozapine, alter how the body uses and processes sugar, which ends up causing a greater appetite for sweet foods. 

Moreover, a 2010 study by David J. Myself and Maria A. Sullivan published in the Journal of Opioid Management found that changes in sugar metabolism and increased appetites for high-sugar diets are associated with long-term opioid use.

Finally, a 2017 review article from Frank et al., published in Frontiers in Neurology found that dietary composition, including particular dietary components, affects the quality, duration, and behaviors of sleep. Intakes of sugar, low fiber, and high saturated fat, for instance, are linked to sleep that is lighter and less restorative.

How do you deal with Sugar cravings?

Dealing with sugar cravings involves a multifaceted approach that addresses both the physiological and psychological components of the desire for sugary foods and beverages. 

Firstly, prioritize a balanced diet that includes complex carbohydrates, fiber-rich foods, and adequate protein. These foods assist to balance blood sugar levels, which reduces the chance of cravings. 

Incorporate regular meals and snacks to maintain steady energy throughout the day. Stay hydrated, as sometimes the body misinterprets thirst as hunger, leading to unnecessary cravings. 

A steady sleep regimen is essential since lack of sleep worsens cravings. Additionally, identify and manage stress through practices such as meditation, deep breathing, or physical activity, as stress is a common trigger for sugar cravings. 

Keep tempting foods out of easy reach, and instead, stock up on healthier alternatives like fresh fruits or nuts. If a craving does arise, consider satisfying it with a small portion of a healthier sweet option to prevent overindulgence. 

Last but not least, reach out to someone you trust, whether it’s a family member, friend, or health professional, for support in minimizing your sugar cravings and staying accountable.

Is Sugar withdrawal real?

Yes, sugar withdrawal is a real phenomenon. It is characterized by a set of physical and psychological symptoms that certain individuals experience when they significantly reduce their sugar intake. When accustomed to a high-sugar diet, abrupt changes lead to withdrawal-like symptoms. 

These symptoms, akin to drug withdrawal, are partly attributed to the impact of sugar on the brain’s reward system and neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. As sugar intake decreases, the body and brain undergo an adjustment period, similar to the withdrawal seen in substance dependencies. 

While not everyone experiences sugar withdrawal to the same degree, recognizing its existence underscores the challenges individuals face when trying to reduce their sugar consumption and transition to a healthier diet.

What are the symptoms of Sugar withdrawal?

Symptoms of sugar withdrawal include a cluster of physical and psychological manifestations that individuals experience when reducing or eliminating sugar from their diet. The symptoms of sugar withdrawal are listed below. 

  • Irritability: Mood swings and irritability are common during sugar withdrawal, reflecting the impact of sugar on neurotransmitters like dopamine. As the body adjusts, the temporary imbalance in these chemicals contribute to emotional fluctuations.
  • Headaches: As the body warms up to reduced sugar intake, sugar withdrawal causes headaches. The brief discomfort is caused by the abrupt shift in blood vessel and neurotransmitter levels.
  • Fatigue: Individuals experiencing sugar withdrawal often report fatigue and low energy levels. This is attributed to the initial reliance on sugar for quick energy, and as the body adapts to alternative energy sources, a temporary decrease in energy occurs.
  • Cravings: Strong cravings for sugary foods are a hallmark symptom of sugar withdrawal. The body, accustomed to regular sugar intake, signals a desire for the familiar energy boost associated with sweet foods, creating a psychological and physiological craving.
  • Nausea: Sugar withdrawal sometimes manifests as nausea, possibly due to the abrupt shift in dietary patterns. This symptom is typically temporary and varies in intensity among individuals.
  • Disruptions in sleep patterns: People undergoing sugar withdrawal experience disruptions in sleep patterns. This involves difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or changes in the overall quality of sleep as the body adjusts to the new dietary regimen.
  • Anxiety: Withdrawal from sugar is associated with increased levels of anxiety and restlessness. Emotions during the transition period are influenced by the neurobiological effects of sugar on mood-regulating neurotransmitters.

What are the available treatments for Sugar addiction?

Available treatments for sugar addiction encompass a variety of strategies and interventions that assist patients in overcoming addictive patterns associated with sugar intake. The available treatments for sugar addiction are listed below. 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT identifies and changes sugar addiction-related thoughts and behaviors. Individuals establish healthier habits, create coping mechanisms, and address psychological factors that contribute to sugar cravings through therapy sessions.
  • Nutritional counseling: Working with a licensed dietitian or nutritionist to build a balanced and sustainable food plan is what nutritional counseling entails. Through teaching people about the nutritional content of foods, this method helps them make smart decisions and supports their slow shift away from sugary foods in favor of healthier options.
  • Support groups: Individuals coping with sugar addiction are able to share their experiences, receive counsel, and obtain emotional support through support groups. There is a safe place to talk about problems, learn from others, and build a network of support in these groups, whether they meet in person or online.
  • Medication: In certain situations, medications are considered as part of the treatment plan for sugar addiction. For instance, a study by Shariff et al., published in the March 2016 issue of PLOS One found that varenicline, a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) partial agonist approved by the United States Food & Drug Administration for smoking cessation, significantly lessens sucrose intake. Particularly evident was this effect in the context of extended usage. Sucrose consumption decreased to an equivalent degree in response to two additional nAChR medications, cytisine and mecamylamine.
  • Physical activity: One important part of beating sugar addiction is getting regular exercise. Regular exercise improves health in general and helps control energy and mood, so one is less likely to reach for sugar when they’re feeling down. A more complete method to breaking addiction patterns and living a healthier life includes making physical activity a regular part of one’s routine.

How long does it take to get over a Sugar addiction?

It takes about four weeks to get over a sugar addiction, according to a 2020 study by Anguah et al., published in the journal Nutrients, which found that a substantial reduction in food cravings was observed following a four-week low-carbohydrate (CHO) diet. The majority of craving subscales, including those for sweets, high fat, fast-food fats, CHO/starches, and total cravings, exhibited this decrease.

Furthermore, in a statement to Mayo Clinic, Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietitian, said it takes just two weeks to completely reset one’s palate, as stated in a 2019 article titled, “When It Comes to Sugar, There Really Is Too Much of a Good Thing” from Mayo Clinic. They’ll discover that after that, they are able to appreciate the sweetness that whole foods like fruit and vegetables naturally have.

Can a therapist help you with a Sugar addiction?

Yes, a therapist can help individuals with sugar addiction. Therapists help people understand and treat the psychological components of the relationship they have with sugar, especially those trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or addiction counseling. 

Together with their clients, they figure out what makes them want sugar, look into any underlying emotional problems, and come up with healthier ways to deal with cravings. Therapists help clients develop realistic and sustainable diets, change their behavior, and address any co-occurring mental health issues that contribute to addiction. They additionally improve drive, self-awareness, and resilience to sugar addiction issues. 

Therapy is a key component of a holistic strategy to recovering sugar addiction because it provides a secure and nonjudgmental space for individuals to examine and work through the complexity of their addiction.

Can you treat Sugar addiction without medication?

crystal sugar

Yes, sugar addiction can be treated without medication. While medication-assisted treatment is considered in specific cases, the primary approach to addressing sugar addiction typically involves non-pharmacological interventions. 

Treatment includes behavioral therapy, dietary counseling, support groups, and lifestyle adjustments. Behavioral treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) help people figure out and change the thoughts and actions that make them crave sugar. 

Individuals learn to eat less sugar through nutritional counseling, which helps them create a healthy eating plan that will last. Support groups and counseling offer emotional support as well as a forum for people to share their experiences. 

An all-encompassing strategy for beating sugar addiction involves making adjustments to one’s lifestyle, such as increasing physical activity, practicing mindfulness, and cutting back on sugar consumption gradually. The goal of these non-drug treatments is to get to the bottom of addiction and help people stay less dependent on sugar for a long time.